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Israelis view the street protests in Egypt with both fear and indifference

In Israel, media coverage of the Egyptian uprising has been superficial at best. Most Israelis know little about the Arab world and are indifferent to the issues that brought Egyptians to the streets; instead, they focus on their fear that the Muslim Brotherhood, which is perceived as hostile to Israel, would fill a power vacuum left by the Mubarak regime

By Elizabeth Tsurkov

Central Security Forces face Egyptian Protesters (photo: M. Soli/ via wikimedia commons)

Most Israelis didn’t see the protests in Egypt coming. The protests rocking Egypt for the past three days have left many Israeli spectators and analysts confused. If the downfall of Mubarak was supposed to mean a takeover of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, why don’t they have a prominent role in the unrest? If the only demands Arabs can articulate are about jobs and food prices, why are protesters demanding the removal of the regime? But the question that hung above it all was “what does this mean for Israel?”, with most analysts (and surely the Israeli government) agreeing that the fall of Mubarak, which seems like a realistic outcome of the nation-wide unrest, is bad for Israel.

In discussions I’ve had with people since the beginning of protests in Egypt, several points became clear. The most obvious one is that the majority of Israelis don’t really care about what is happening in the countries neighboring them, at least not until events become significant enough to potentially affect Israel. Another important phenomenon is that the Israeli media managed to cover the protests without addressing the core of the issue, which are the demands of the Egyptian people that have brought them out into the streets and made them willing to face harsh treatment from the police. Instead, the Israeli media either discussed how this affects Israel and how violent all the images flashing on TV seem.

Israel’s lack of understanding of the Arab world is significant and is a result of numerous factors, including the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict though which the Arab world is viewed in Israel, extreme focus on how outside events affect Israel and not on what’s actually going on mixed with paranoia, and good old racism. The reason Israelis didn’t see these protests coming (as well as the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia) is a result of this lack of understanding. In the Israeli mind, the so-called “Arab street” is connected to violence, anti-Israeli and anti-US sentiment (which are kept at bay by the rulers), poverty, conservatism and Islamism. What never enters into the Israeli discussions about the “Arab street” is the yearning of Arabs for freedom and a dignified living of which they’ve been deprived for decades. Israelis cannot imagine that Arabs, just like them, would like to have freedom of expression and assembly and that they would be willing to fight and die to achieve those rights.

Protest sign photographed in Cairo on 28 January 2011 (photo: Sarah Carr/ Flickr)

When describing the reasons for the protests, all commentators mentioned unemployment, rising food prices, corruption, unequal distribution of wealth. Very few mentioned that Arabs could be interested in democracy and human rights. Many Israelis seem to believe that all Arabs live under autocratic regimes because this is what the backward Arabs want and deserve, or because the people are apathetic and weak and only care about bread and butter issues. The “Arab street” Israelis imagine couldn’t possibly coordinate and plan protests using social media because it is supposed to be conservative and act through established channels like opposition parties, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood, and not in an a-political manner with a unified call for freedom and regime change.

When possible scenarios are mentioned (and experts in Israel and the Israeli government have been skeptical about any major consequences of this until yesterday), the fear of the Muslim Brotherhood pervades every discussion. Even when commentators agree that the Muslim Brotherhood is not behind the protests, experts are quick to point out any instances where Muslim Brotherhood involvement in visible or imagined. Experts fear that the unrest and lack of leadership of the protesters will result in a Muslim Brotherhood takeover. But above all, the Israeli government and many Israelis fear democracy in Egypt, in which the Muslim Brotherhood will be able to get elected in fair and free elections. The specter of what happened with the Hamas takeover of Gaza after the free elections in the Palestinian Authority looms large over this discussion.

What many Israelis don’t seem to think is that while Israel benefits from cooperation with Egypt, especially in the counter-terrorism efforts, there is a moral problem with favoring our interests over the interests of millions of Arabs who are being silenced, tortured and murdered so that the mirage of stability can be maintained for a little longer. But even if one thinks that morals have no place in politics, even if we are only to consider Israel’s interests, it is clear by now that relying on unpopular leaders who repress their people will not contribute to stability. Those concerned with the Muslim Brotherhood tend to ignore the fact that the relative appeal of the movement is a result of the decades of repression and the corruption of the Mubarak regime. The threat of the Muslim Brotherhood is also overstated –  many so-called “moderate” regimes in the Middle East are trumping up the Islamist threat to justify the lack of freedom in their countries and in order to present themselves as the safe alternative. As the events in Tunisia and Egypt have proven, the Islamists aren’t the only alternative to a repressive secular regime.

All over the Middle East, people have had enough of their oppressive and corrupt regimes and witnessing the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt has emboldened them to demand their rights. Israel is supporting a status quo that is unsustainable and the sooner it realizes that and prepares for a future where the people of the Middle East govern themselves, the better.

Elizabeth Tsurkov studies media and international relations at the Hebrew University. She is closely following events in Egypt on Twitter.

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    1. Chen Elishkewits

      As a fellow Israeli I have to say that I agree with most of what you said, except for this:
      1. I don’t think Israelies are more indifferent than others about what’s happening in the Arab world. I think the west as a whole doesn’t really care. The media everywhere is west oriented, and that is why things that happen in places like Egypt and Tunisia will never really receive attention unless there’s a lot of blood spilling over.
      2. I think the first article I read about the uprising in Egypt, an article in Haaretz I think, said the uprising purpose was achieving more democracy in Egypt and resent about the Mubarak regym. So it’s not that accurate that the media here presents everything as bread and butter issues.
      3. I do believe that it is quite reasonable for us to consider, first of all, the possible effects of this uprising on Israel, and I do believe that on the short term they will be bad. But then again, Israel has to wake up from it’s comma, so maybe shaking the whole area of the middle east will finally have it’s positive effect on Israel too.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Chen, I completely agree with you that Israelis don’t care about the Arab world as much as the West. However, we’re right in the middle of it, and I would expect Israel to care more about what is happening right next to its borders. You’re also right that the Israeli media is similar in many regards to the Western media in its overwhelming focus on the west. However, our fascination with the West (and in particularly the US) is not based on what actually affects Israel. An uprising in Egypt affects Israel much more than the assassination of a congresswoman in Arizona, for example. What happens in Cairo seriously affects us, unlike the West, which is affected much less by this.

      I agree with you that some coverage of the Egyptian uprising in Israel has been good, like the Haaretz article you mentioned. However, the overwhelming majority of the discussions about this showed a serious lack of understanding of the Arab world, in my opinion.

      I don’t have a problem with people considering how this affects Israel. It’s only natural to wonder. I have a problem with people saying that Mubarak is better for Israel, which means that freedom to the Egyptian people is bad for Israel. Not only is it wrong (but that’s my opinion) it also shows that we prefer our interests over those of the Egyptians. Egyptians are just as human as us and their interests should enter the discussion about whether this uprising is good or not.

      Reply to Comment
    3. rbmeritt

      The picture with this piece tells it all. The writing that says “give back our resources” is a statement against anyone tied to the thievery of the so called “Democratic West”. Anyone with ties to or even accepted by the West may be seen as Mubarak in sheep’s clothing. The year of the locust has arrived,these people are not looking for a leader ,they have taken the lead themselves and that opium of the masses may not wear off anytime soon. The Americans and the Israelis who constantly say “It’s all about me” are suddenly standing face to face with someone who yells back “No,it isn’t” will have to consider that just maybe it isn’t all about them.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Chen Elishkewits

      Well, if you listen to the media right now you will see there’s a really big focus on covering everything’s going on in Egypt atm, including constant updating from journalists that are posted in Egypt and special reports fluently in the radio. Once this became serious I think Israel is focusing it’s media on this more than in Europe or the U.S.
      Secondly, it might be the right thing to do, to care about the Egyptians as I care about myself, but unfortunately I can’t say I do… I care much more about a fellow Israeli I don’t know, than on some Egyptian… That’s the humane quality of Empathy. It becomes weaker as you become more far from the object, as Dr. Taub taught us in uni 🙂
      Anyhow, that’s why even in the price of another country’s suffering, I think it’s natural for Israel to want the status quo, which is extremely comfortable to her, than anything else, even if it’s better for the Egyptian people.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ben Israel

      Elizabeth says:
      Israel is supporting a status quo that is unsustainable and the sooner it realizes that and prepares for a future where the people of the Middle East govern themselves, the better.


      I note here a comment that I see many other people making..i.e. that somehow Israel is responsible for keeping the Mubarak regime in power, or that the US is responsible. Sure, countries may support a leader who is seen to support the policies that they view as advantageous to them, but it seems to me the height of ignorance to think that Israel or even the US can dictate what government is in power in another country, short of outright military intervention, Iraq-style. Certainly, Progressive commentators who are anti-Israel like to add on to the charge-sheet against Israel its supposed ability in keeping unpopular Arab rulers in power, but this is ridiculous. Why is it that Israel didn’t succeed in keeping the Shah in power, or the Gemayal/Falangists in power in Lebanon, or preventing the HAMAS from taking over Gaza?

      Secondly, who says more popular, democratic regimes in touch with popular feeling in the Arab countries are going to want to make peace with Israel?

      Reply to Comment
    6. yoni

      “instead, they focus on their fear that the Muslim Brotherhood”

      well that’s just plain false reporting or lying. i’ve been watching israeli television all day for ours, channels 1, 2 and 10, and during all this time i’ve heard maybe one comment about the muslim brotherhood.

      but what else is new. you guys decide on the commentary, and hope for the reality to go along with it.

      Reply to Comment
      • Yoni, I watched 20 minutes of Channel 2 and heard the Muslim Brotherhood mentioned about 10 times by Ehud Yaari, the former Israeli ambassador to Egypt and Ron Ben Yishai. Then I switched over to Channel 10 and it was the same thing. So either *you* are lying, or you simply are not following the story via Israeli media.

        Reply to Comment
    7. Yiftach

      I agree with a lot, maybe most of what you’re saying, but thought a couple of point need to be clarified:
      1. “the majority of Israelis don’t really care about what is happening in the countries neighboring them, at least not until events become significant enough to potentially affect Israel. ”
      I think you can safely replace the words “Israel/is” with pretty much every nation/country I know. No American cared about Pakistan/Agfhanistan/etc. until they became ‘relevant’. I don’t think people in Slovania really care about what’s going on in Indonesia right now, and vice versa.

      2. “Most Israelis didn’t see the protests in Egypt coming”.
      Who did? honestly asking: did *you* see it coming? do you know *anyone* who did?

      Yes, we should know our neighbors better. And vice versa. Yes, regimes, both in Israel and in neighboring countries have been obstacles for peace. But not all is due to ignorance.

      Anyway, I think the focus now shoul be on the future. Israel’s government is right to wait and see what will happen, since, if Mubarak in some way that seem quite impossible now, keeps his chair, we shouldn’t lose our ability to work with him. But at the same time, plans should be made for the day after (and I do hope Egyptians get the freedom they deserve). Israel’s best move, once the dust has sunk, would be to approach the new regime – whoever it is, lend its hand and say: We congratulate you. We’ve had peace for 30 years, and not only do we want to keep this peace, but now would like to see it flourish.
      Of course, deeds are more important than words. If Israel would be smart enough to lend helping hands, to invite Egyptian students, to offer mutual projects – we Israelis, and Egyptians would all just profit.
      Too bad I can’t see Netanyahu doing that though.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Ben Israel, I didn’t say that Israel has the power to dictate who the rulers of a country are (not in Egypt or elsewhere). What I said, as you quoted me saying, is that Israel supports Mubarak. That supports means maintaining good relations with him and placing all the eggs in his basket. This means that when Mubarak falls (and he will), Israel will be left with no one to rely on for continued military and strategic cooperation. What I said in the paragraph you quoted is that Israel better prepare for a future without these autocratic “moderate” leaders, since their people have had enough of them.

      Yoni, I’m not sure what universe you’re living in. The Israeli media is obsessed with the Muslim Brotherhood, just like the Mubarak regime is. You are welcomed to look at the number of articles mentioning the MB in the last day: http://is.gd/bl1G3j (google news search in Hebrew).

      Yiftach, the US doesn’t share a border with Egypt and hasn’t gone to war with Egypt three times, and isn’t cooperating with Egypt in an unprecedented manner when it comes to security, Gilad Shalit and Hamas. Israelis know more about what’s happening in the US than what happens next door and this must change.
      I don’t want to brag, but I did see these protests coming. First of all, these protests have been in the making for three weeks and I followed that closely. Second, since the brutal murder of Khaled Said by policemen in Alexandria in June of last year, the rate of protests in Egypt and their scope has increased significantly. The protests were organized online or locally and did not involve the Muslim Brotherhood at any point. This is why I saw this coming and I knew that the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t going to be the leader of this uprising, as Israeli commentators expected them to be.
      What you described as the future for Israeli-Egyptian relations closely resembles what Israel tried to do in South Africa after the fall of the Apartheid regime. It didn’t work then (relations cooled off) and it won’t work now. When the true demands of the Egyptian people will be the demands of their democratically elected government (and I hope this happens, and not some military takeover), Egypt won’t be interested in warming up relation with us as long as the occupation is continuing.

      Reply to Comment
    9. YONI

      lisa maybe noam is also *lying*?


      maybe it’s because he’s the only journalist here. or maybe that’s just what happend when you have this critical theory on the israeli media which is, like you said, actually based on a solid research of.. hmm.. 20 minutes.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Yoni, I’m not the only one who noticed this trend. See Hagai Elad’s piece here: http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART2/206/220.html?hp=1&loc=30

      You’ll also “enjoy” Benny Ziffer’s piece in the supposedly liberal Haaretz http://is.gd/A6x8zI. This by Ben Kaspit (Maariv), mourning the fall of Mubarak and hoping Assad stays in power for Israel’s sake http://is.gd/iokwvU. Ynet trumping up the Muslim Brotherhood threat: http://is.gd/mA67q5. Channel 10: middle class is worried about the Muslim Brotherhood & anarchy http://is.gd/qm4uBX (both untrue, looting is by regime forces and MB isn’t seen as a serious threat by most). Maariv reporting about how this uprising is bad for Israel http://is.gd/npGfW5. Channel 2 report includes factual mistakes (not army shot at protesters) & focus on Israel, influence of this on Hamas http://is.gd/ab6uzi. I could go on, but I hope you get the point.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Absolute rubbish. This article itself is superficial. It’s only normal for citizens of a certain countries to care more about their own problems than those of their neibhours. But when compared to Bulgaria for example (where I live) it seems like total nonsense. Israelis care more about their neibhours than bulgarians or germans, luxembourgish, french or dutch people. The same goes for the US, the UK etc. And it’s only natural to view these protests with a sceptical eye – almost the entire population of this country has a negative attitude towards Israel and the jews as a whole. This is not a media exaguration, it’s a fact. Just look at the statistics and the polls. And when a country in which the majority are either ignorant, illiterate or have read 1 book in their lives it’s dangeourous for such emotions to appear on the political scene. Ofcourse, it’s also true that egyptians (an almost all citizens of the arab countries) are living in dire conditions and are being opressed. It will be hard for you to find a person in Israel who does not know that. And it’s also common sense to be careful about the mood of the population of a country in which 1/3 can’t read and 80% are poor (and therefore desperate, easy to manipulate etc.) and whose only real, organized political opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood. A facebook group of a self-proclaimed liberal democratic group (or several of them) does not represent an organized political opposition. What Egypt need more than a revolution is an evolution. Though it seems one is needed for the other. We shall see.

      Reply to Comment